[Note: Due to time constraints, Andrew's Monday talk with Mike Gallagher has been moved to Tuesday this week.]
One of the remarks I often hear from people who have never worked in the movie business is, “Hollywood is all about money. They just make whatever movies they think will sell.” Folks usually trot this out when I point to the decades-long left-wing slant of our popular entertainment. “Oh, no movie-making has nothing to do with politics,” they say. “Hollywood is all about money…”
But like other such remarks—“all men ever think about is sex,” and “all politicians are the same,”—“Hollywood is all about money,” sounds cynical and worldly-wise but comes nowhere near the truth.
For one thing, at various places along the chain of production, there are writers and directors who want to express their visions, actors who want to stretch their craft and even studio executives who want a couple of films on their slates they can be proud of and that will win awards. Just like everyone else, people in Hollywood have a number of different motives for doing what they do.
But yes, they also want to make money. It’s a business. That’s one of the points of the exercise.
Most people, however, don’t understand how the money is made. The fact is, the original cause-and-effect relationship between good movies and high profits has long been inoperative.
A book called The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies by Edward Jay Epstein explains a good deal. Epstein points out that while journalists obsess over who “won the weekend” at the box office, films make only a very small percentage of their take in theaters. The rest comes from other sources such as international distribution deals, property licensing, DVD releases and overpriced popcorn.
This is not the way the movie business began. There was a time, as Epstein points out, when some eighty percent of the active population went to a film every single week. What’s more, studios made all the movies and owned most American theaters. This made the relationship between filmmakers and the public very clear: if you gave the people what they wanted, you made money. That meant, in turn, that the sensibility of ordinary Americans ultimately ruled. If some snooty intellectual writer or director imagined himself above the common herd, or some brain-challenged actor held a bunch of idiot political opinions, the studios simply couldn’t afford to let those attitudes pollute the films they made. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: Those who live to please must please to live.
Today, as Epstein’s book explains, only about ten percent of the population goes to the movies every week. As a result, studios must create a new audience for each film. Even if they succeed, only multiple other income streams and clever financing deals can keep the movie-making apparatus afloat. The result is that the direct link between wide-ranging popularity and profits has broken down. The desires and attitudes of niche markets and foreign audiences can be as powerful as those of the ordinary American.
With pressure from conservatives brought to bear against liberal Hollywood, conservative popular films can still be made and sold—a look at this summer’s line-up from Iron Man 2 to Robin Hood and even the libertarian Sex and The City sequel will bear that out. But radicalism and nutbaggery can also win the day through smart marketing and financing, even if they die the death at the box office.
Thus films, especially prestige films intended to win good reviews and awards, continue to be dominated by the liberals who dominate LA–and will be until conservatives seize a place at the table.